Thousands of veterans advocates are set to renew their annual Memorial Day motorcycle ride around the National Mall next month, but they’re still waiting on Pentagon planners to respond to requests for help making the event safe amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“These people are coming no matter what,” said Joe Chenelly, national executive director of AMVETS, organizers of the Rolling to Remember rally. “This is something that means a lot to people. So we’re trying to make sure there is a safe, responsible environment for them.”
The motorcycle parade is the successor to the annual Rolling Thunder ride which was held for 32 years to draw attention to American service members still missing in action from wars overseas.
The event was one of the largest annual veterans events in America, routinely drawing tens of thousands of riders to the National Mall each Memorial Day weekend. But organizers ended the tradition in 2019, citing the growing costs of crowd control and a lack of consistent cooperation from leaders at the Pentagon, whose parking lot was used as a pre-parade staging area.
The AMVETS event, designed to highlight both POW/MIA troops and veterans who died by suicide, was held with just a few dozen riders last year, in the early days of the pandemic. This year’s event is expected to draw a crowd of about 10,000 riders on May 30.
His group has already gotten the event cleared by National Park Service officials, Department of Transportation officials and local law enforcement agencies. The group has spent about $75,000 on logistics and is expected to double that amount in coming weeks, if they can get permission to use the Pentagon parking lot for staging again.
That petition is still pending, despite the group filing paperwork for the event last summer. AMVETS organizers were given the go-ahead earlier this year to plan on using the parking area, but Pentagon officials later rescinded that, saying no final decision had been made.
Now, with just 52 days until the event, Chenelly said he is worried military leaders will wait too long on a final decision for the group to get backup plans in place.
“We’re really concerned about safety here,” he said. “We know people will be here. So we’ve outlined a plan of how to keep them socially distanced, have COVID safety officers on hand to watch them, have enough masks and hand sanitizers available for everyone.”
Pentagon officials did not respond to requests for comment. Chenelly said officials did reach out to him for the first time in weeks after media inquiries into the issue, but did not offer any further clarity on the decision process.
As they have since the start of the pandemic, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials currently recommend that large gatherings be avoided, but have also issued guidance on how to make such events safer, such as wearing masks and social distancing.
Earlier this month, Washington, D.C. leaders gave permission for the Washington Nationals to allow 5,000 fans at their stadium (which sits just a few miles from the Pentagon) for the start of the 2021 baseball season. Other cities have allowed even higher numbers.
Chenelly said if organizers can use the Pentagon lot, they are confident that participants will be sufficiently spaced both before and during the event.
If they can’t, he’s not sure what participants will do.
“One of the things we changed from the past is abandoning any large gatherings at the Lincoln Memorial, because of the close space there,” he said. “If we were forced to go back there, it just wouldn’t be as safe.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.